The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean / Edition 1

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Overview

Kimberley Patton examines the environmental crises facing the world's oceans from the perspective of religious history. Much as the ancient Greeks believed, and Euripides wrote, that "the sea can wash away all evils," a wide range of cultures have sacralized the sea, trusting in its power to wash away what is dangerous, dirty, and morally contaminating. The sea makes life on land possible by keeping it "pure."

Patton sets out to learn whether the treatment of the world's oceans by industrialized nations arises from the same faith in their infinite and regenerative qualities. Indeed, the sea's natural characteristics, such as its vast size and depth, chronic motion and chaos, seeming biotic inexhaustibility, and unique composition of powerful purifiers-salt and water-support a view of the sea as a "no place" capable of swallowing limitless amounts of waste. And despite evidence to the contrary, the idea that the oceans could be harmed by wasteful and reckless practices has been slow to take hold.

Patton believes that environmental scientists and ecological advocates ignore this relationship at great cost. She bases her argument on three influential stories: Euripides' tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris; an Inuit myth about the wild and angry sea spirit Sedna who lives on the ocean floor with hair dirtied by human transgression; and a disturbing medieval Hindu tale of a lethal underwater mare. She also studies narratives in which the sea spits back its contents-sins, corpses, evidence of guilt long sequestered-suggesting that there are limits to the ocean's vast, salty heart.

In these stories, the sea is either an agent of destruction or a giver of life, yet it is also treated as a passive receptacle. Combining a history of this ambivalence toward the world's oceans with a serious scientific analysis of modern marine pollution, Patton writes a compelling, cross-disciplinary study that couldn't be more urgent or timely.

Columbia University Press

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What People Are Saying

Mary Evelyn Tucker

This book is a unique contribution to one of the most pressing environmental problems of our timesmdash;the condition of the world's oceans. With the increasingly dire news on the state of the planet, ethical and religious perspectives are crucial to long term solutions. This book offers precisely such perspectives in a lively and engaging manner.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University

Rachel Fell McDermott

The cumulative effect of this book is to make one chillingly aware of the longmdash;standing conceptual underpinnings of widely accepted beliefs about the inviolability of the oceansmdash;and to make one intensely worried about the future of our world's waters. The book also produces an 'aha' feeling in the reader, for the influence of religious ideology on our current attitudes seems self-evident once Patton has argued it. This is the sign of a significant and beautifully sculpted work.

Rachel Fell McDermott, Barnard College

Mary Evelyn Tucker
This book is a unique contribution to one of the most pressing environmental problems of our timesmdash;the condition of the world's oceans. With the increasingly dire news on the state of the planet, ethical and religious perspectives are crucial to long term solutions. This book offers precisely such perspectives in a lively and engaging manner.
Rachel Fell McDermott
The cumulative effect of this book is to make one chillingly aware of the longmdash;standing conceptual underpinnings of widely accepted beliefs about the inviolability of the oceansmdash;and to make one intensely worried about the future of our world's waters. The book also produces an 'aha' feeling in the reader, for the influence of religious ideology on our current attitudes seems self-evident once Patton has argued it. This is the sign of a significant and beautifully sculpted work.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231138062
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/5/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kimberley C. Patton is Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School, where she teaches courses in ancient Greek religion and archeology as well as in comparative phenomenology of world religions, including natural elements. She is the author and co-editor of a number of books, including Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity (Oxford) and is the coeditor of A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics (Columbia University Press).

Columbia University Press

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2007

    More Fragile Than We Thin

    If Ponce de Leon had found the legendary fountain of youth, it would probably have gushed with salt water. It¿s likely he wouldn¿t have been surprised ¿ the rejuvenating benefits of salt water have been known for millennia. In classical Greece, the Hippocratic Treatise on medicine cited the benefits of seawater. Hippocrates noticed its healing affects on fishermen, who soaked their injured hands in seawater to reduce swelling and relieve pain. Modern research has shown that the skin¿s absorption of natural minerals in salt water can help heal and relax the muscles, bring about a healthy calcium balance, and strengthen the immune system, among other benefits. The French, who have been indulging in ¿thalassotherapy¿ for two hundred years, paint themselves in ground seaweed or heated, briny mud and sprinkle and spray themselves with fresh seawater. The physical and emotional benefits of salt water are now being taken up by American spas. ........ But these days, thalassotherapy is usually an indoor pursuit, not only for convenience but because our coasts are so often contaminated with man-made pollution, a fact impossible to ignore in the hundreds of beach closings each year caused by unsafe runoff, contaminated groundwater, and sewage. The problem extends to the most remote reaches of the deep ocean, as demonstrated by the 2006 discovery of a Texas-sized area of trash floating in the Pacific. The healing sea has become a theatre of contradictions. ........ Hippocrates, a contemporary of the Athenian playwright Euripides, may well have heard an actor utter the words ¿the sea can wash away all evils¿ in the dramatist¿s tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris 'ca. 414 BCE'. In this book, which takes that line as its title, Kimberley C. Patton examines how deep-rooted notions of the sea as purifying and inexhaustibly self-renewing have informed the alarming rate at which modern societies continue to pollute the World Ocean. ........ Patton, a historian of religions at Harvard Divinity School, begins with a modern example of human confusion about the ocean¿s role and capacity, the Dutch Bread-Man. In 1992, a private group in Holland planned to create a 100-foot, 880-ton welded steel-framed human figure stuffed with 20,000 loaves of bread and sink it off the coast as a ¿National Gift to the Sea,¿ both a thank-offering and an expression of Dutch national identity. The Dutch government banned the project as violating the Seawater Contamination Act and received more than 33,000 letters of protest. For Patton, the Bread-Man symbolizes ¿an unreflective dumping into the sea of the waste generated by an industrialized global economy.¿ ........ Several currents of information and thought come together in the ensuing chapters. Patton presents some dire data about industrial pollution of the oceans ¿ the chemicals, oil, nuclear materials, and noise that humans have put into them ¿ and moves on to a discussion of traditional religious ideas about nature, purity, and purification. Her analysis includes the specific qualities of the ocean that have been supernaturalized, such as water, salt, depth, its 'apparent' infinity, and the role of the sea as a graveyard and as the all-encircling ground of being that sets the context for human existence. Flowing through these various currents is her contention that traditional religious systems of purity and modern industrial societies share the same need, ¿for the `permanent¿ disposal ¿ out of sight, out of mind, and out of contact ¿ of what land-based human societies¿must be rid in order to maintain a normal, `pure¿ collective existence.¿ ........ Patton illustrates her thesis with three very different but thematically related myths, drawing from Greek, Inuit, and Hindu traditions ¿ not with the idea that modern economies are explicitly informed by ancient beliefs but to offer representations of ¿analogous pathways of thought.¿ In the Greek story of Iphigenia, as dramatized by

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